Is Government's broadband policy creating a 'digital underclass'?

THE Government's broadband policy is focused on speeds: first, rolling out a 2Mb minimum to everyone (the Universal Service Commitment) and second, increasing the provision of 'superfast' fibre drastically.

But, some commentators argue, that focus is creating a 'digital underclass' who face being left behind as essential services move online.

Are they right? And what's the alternative?

What is digital exclusion?

'Digital exclusion' is a broad term which can variously refer to households which don't have easy access to an internet connection or individuals who've never learnt how to use the internet.

ONS research from early 2010 suggests that around 9.2m British adults have never used the internet.

Basic literacy and digital literacy are closely linked: four million of those who are digitally excluded are also socially excluded.

Of those, 39% are over 65, 38% are unemployed and 19% are families with children.

Cost also plays a large part in exclusion.

By some estimates the move to next generation access could price some out of the market: NGA costs more than £1,000 per home but that relies on all the households that can take it up doing so.

For the same money, some say, 10 or 20 people could get online for the first time.

However, figures based on cost can be a little misleading.

Only 10% or 20% of homes might take up the new faster network so £5,000 per home might be more accurate, for example.

In addition, in 2003, with broadband access at fairly low levels and little difference in the speeds available, there was little difference in take-up by socioeconomic group.

"Relatively speaking, the most vulnerable groups were actually worse off in 2009," says Ellen Helsper, a lecturer in communications at the LSE, who coined the 'digital underclass' term.

"The world around them has exponentially increased their take up of higher speed connections but this group does not seem to catch up."

However, 'relatively' less well off isn't the same as less well off. It's not infrastructure that's the problem but take up and use of the existing available connections.

The wrong emphasis?

In a July 2011 policy report Helsper warned that, "universal roll out [of] high speed broadband does not automatically lead to increased use for all.

"Government responsibility needs to go beyond infrastructure and digital by default [effectively, putting all public service information online] strategies."

The implication in the report is that the laissez-faire approach ignores the nuts and bolts of digital inclusion, encouraging the most vulnerable to acquire the skills which, she argues, remain absent "independent of age or other characteristics".

In an October 2010 blog post commenting on the Government's renewed commitment to meeting its universal service commitment of 2Mb Andrew Heaney, TalkTalk's Executive Director of Strategy and Regulation agreed.

"We think that in such a tough economic climate [funding 'superfast broadband']... would be the wrong focus".

"Using the Internet can save homes over £500 per year as well as helping to be better educated and informed and be more engaged with society and family," he added.

Relying on the market

Helsper's report argues that the Government's plan for getting the so-called 'digital underclass' online currently relies too much on the market.

Given that broadband and line rental prices had risen significantly over the previous twelve months, she might have gone a bit further in her criticism.

Left to the market, the digital underclass looks set to grow.

It's a charge they'd no doubt deny. Take, for example, the broadband market's defence of the poorest households when the Government planned a 50p line rental tax.

"We estimate that the increase in price will mean that over 100,000 mostly low income homes will be forced to give up their broadband lines," said Charles Dunstone, chief executive of TalkTalk.

"This is wholly inconsistent with the Government's plans to tackle digital exclusion by increasing uptake and use of broadband," he added.

A few months later, TalkTalk increased their line rental price, by 55p a month.

In other respects, the broadband market is often at odds with providing a suitable service for those on low incomes.

In September 2011, for example, Consumer Focus' Scotland's Digital Needs report advocated PAYG broadband tariffs for those on low incomes.

"Tariffs of this nature could benefit consumers who do not wish to, or who are not in a position to, take out a longer contract and improve broadband take-up among this group," the report said.

No ISPs responded.

In addition, although many broadband providers, including BT and TalkTalk offer significant amounts of support for those who have fallen into financial hardship these schemes are rarely publicised.

The right emphasis?

On the other hand, schemes which aim to bypass the market are far from faultless themselves.

The Government's National Digital Participation Plan aims to get 7.5 million new internet users online by 2014.

The plan is supported by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) and focuses particularly on older people and the disadvantaged.

The Plan is supported by the skills and expertise of the Consortium for the Promotion of Digital Participation.

Broadcasters including the BBC, BSkyB and Virgin Media are part of the 60-member Consortium, drawn from government, industry, education and the third sector to represent the promotion of digital participation through social media and outreach programmes.

The Plan is also part of the government's Universal Service Commitment since it includes a Home Access Programme, which will provide free computers and internet to 270,000 families in the UK, as well as the development of more UK Online Centres.

However, the most publicised part of the plan is Martha Lane-Fox's 'Race Online'.

The co-founder of Lastminute.com who managed to keep her post as "digital champion" despite the change of Government plans to get everyone in the UK of working age online before the year 2015.

For the time being, though, Lane-Fox plans to race ahead with the Race Online 2012 scheme, which aims to achieve the same goal by the end of 2012 with the help of 400 businesses.

Lane-Fox said, "We cannot wait for new technology solutions or for better and faster infrastructure. We need to recycle and join up our existing infrastructure to exploit the assets and the skills that we already have.

"We need to be ambitious, 'think internet first' when we design services, and put the needs of the hardest to reach at the heart of industry, charity and government. There is a social and moral case to make sure more people are online."

Eyebrow raising

Lane-Fox's infectious enthusiasm for her cause does sometimes lead to overselling (sample line: "'I would be dead without the internet,' a young man from Leeds told me") and there are some eyebrow raising moments as Lane-Fox proposes that there's a need to combat the lack of motivation amongst those who aren't already online.

It's the opposite of the 'build it and they'll come' attitude of those campaigning for a bigger and better broadband infrastructure.

A high percentage of Brits say that they're unlikely to go online in the next twelve months simply because they describe the internet as "not for me", according to an Ofcom study cited in Race Online's own report: if they don't want to, why should we make them?

However, the expense of getting online and a lack of skills were also cited as reasons for staying offline.

Although, as the report notes, huge competition in the market has made UK broadband prices some of the lowest in the world the report advocates lowering prices further for those on a low income, an option already available for home phone customers which should certainly be welcomed.

All in all, Lane-Fox's aims are noble but with far more essential budgets cut to the bone how she'll manage it remains to be seen.

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